The MISL has needed to carve out a specific audience for itself. Indeed, in those cities where it has failed, one constant has been that management tried to beat the traditional sports with traditional sports promotion. Where the league has succeeded, it has been the first sport consciously to try to market itself as a product, as if it were a soap or a tire. The audience has been carefully targeted, the Show professionally choreographed, the entire image packaged. It's a point of pride in the league office that the greatest success has come precisely in those cities where management has had no prior connection with soccer—or even, as we shall see, but for one notable exception, with sports of any kind. The Leiwekes came from such disparate backgrounds as education, politics, condominiums and television. Bill Kentling, the chief in Wichita, was an executive at Pizza Hut. Mitch Burke, in Baltimore, was pursuing a doctorate in psychology when he answered a classified ad. Verb came up through public relations. In indoor soccer, GM stands for General Marketer.
Essentially, the state of the art of sports promotion has progressed little in the last 30 years. Bill Veeck's ideas may have been revamped, enlarged and improved upon, but even the neo-Veeckian San Diego Chicken and his imitators have only taken the master's midcentury, pre-TV generation schemes so far. The Leiwekes—the Hustle Brothers, as frustrated critics in pro basketball characterize them—and their philosophical comrades in the MISL are introducing to us what a fully integrated sports promotional effort will henceforth resemble.
Tracey L., the president of the Kansas City Comets, is the oldest of the four Leiwekes, the handsomest and slickest of the lot. With what may be described as a punk-deco campaign, the Comets have an average attendance of 14,500, 90% of capacity at the Kemper Arena, while the competition NBA Kings, a .500 club, are drawing 8,710 per game and have quietly gone up for sale. "I couldn't possibly work in the NBA, or for major league baseball, the NHL—any of those old leagues," Tracey L. says, "because everything is written down there. It's all in concrete. Here we're making history.
"What we're trying to do with the Comets is to make them an experience. Everything about the club has to bolster the image. The theme must be constant. You'll hear the same music on our radio commercials, for example, as you hear at the arena. People who dismiss us as simply being creative-marketing guys are missing the point. We're setting a whole tone.
"I'll never get involved in running the team, either, because I'm the first to say that I don't have any soccer expertise. But one thing: I won't have anyone playing for the Comets who's not prepared to work in the community for the team. Our players made 500 appearances for us this year. What's the point of having a sophisticated advertising campaign if your main marketing weapons, your players, won't be a part of it? Now, we haven't evolved to the point where money is the sole incentive for our players. I don't know if that's a byproduct of success. We'll find out. I do know that if we ever get there, if we come to that point we see in other sports, where the player thinks he's bigger than the club, then I'm gone.
"You see, the old theory in sports always was that you had to sell victory. Now, I'm not naive. Of course, you must attain a certain degree of success on the field. But you can't go into this business depending on victory. You risk disappointing your fans too much that way. The main problem with professional sports today is that they bring us too much reality. That's precisely what we're trying to get away from when we go out to a game. Around here, if there's one thing we're selling more than anything else, it's emotion."
Part of soccer's continuing problem in America is that it has always operated from a belligerent negative, the premise being that Americans should be ashamed of themselves for not cottoning to the game that everybody else in the world adores. Alas, the proposition is upside down, flying in the face of all other evidence, which tells us that in the modern world almost all entertainment tastes—from cowboys to Coca-Cola—have been exported from America, not imported to it. Soccer people might just as well try to force a monarchy on the U.S.
The updated illusion is that we merely need to have the World Cup played in the States in '86 to make converts of the millions of Americans who have studiously avoided paying to see soccer. True to this faith, the NASL, the outdoor league, is starting Team America, a franchise stocked with citizen-athletes that will play in the NASL, representing Washington (Our Nation's Capital!) while practicing as a unit to be the home team for the '86 Cup.
The other thesis soccer believers hang their hats on is that as participation in soccer grows, so must spectator interest. That has been an article of faith. But as Bill Center, an SI correspondent who has been covering soccer for the San Diego Union since 1968, notes, "One of the first things said by the owners of the original San Diego Toros was, 'When the kids playing soccer today grow up, soccer in the U.S. will become the Number One spectator sport.' Well, a 10-year-old playing youth soccer in 1968 is now 25." And, as Center says, precious few 25-year-olds care to go to soccer games. Still, if you scratch NASL Commissioner Howard Samuels, he will immediately begin talking about the eight million kids who play soccer today and how well this bodes for the future of soccer ticket sales.
The fact is, of course, that there's precious little correlation between participant sports and box office. When was the last time bowlers broke the gates down at the Rose Bowl to watch the PBA tour there? It may also be true that outdoor soccer is simply bad theater.